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Allison K Williams
Looking Backward—Giving Power to the Past in Memoir
July 26, 2024
11 AM PDT | 12 PM MDT | 1 PM CDT | 2 PM EDT

The key question for all memoirists: So what?

Why should the reader care? What’s in it for them? Just as we grew and changed in the story itself, our telling of it must grow and change the reader. Meanwhile, memoirists are already at a disadvantage in creating dramatic tension. We already know you survived, because you wrote a book about it.

Both these challenges are addressed through the retrospective voice—which is not the same as simply describing past events or using the past tense. The retrospective voice juxtaposes events to create meaning, and brings a sense of shared humanity and realization to the reader. This technique is one of our most powerful craft tools, and a skill every memoirist needs. Chances are, you’re already instinctively using it as you weave the past into the present, but the retrospective voice can feel a lot like “telling” unless it’s handled well.

We’ll discuss:

  • What the retrospective voice is and why you need it
  • How the retrospective voice is different than “the past” or “the past tense”
  • Examples of successful retrospective voice in published memoirs
  • Where in your memoir to use this technique
  • How the retrospective voice creates dramatic tension—even when we already know what happened!

And we’ll demonstrate how to apply this technique to a scene from a volunteer.


Allison K Williams has edited and coached writers to deals with Penguin Random House, Knopf, Mantle and independent presses. She’s guided essayists to publication in the New Yorker, Time, the Guardian, the New York Times, McSweeney’s and TED Talks. As Social Media Editor for Brevity, she inspires thousands of writers with blogs on craft and the writing life.

A former circus performer, Allison has written for NPR, CBC-Canada, the New York Times, Creative Nonfiction and Writers Digest. She is the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book.


Retreat in France at Clos Mirabel
Join Allison & Dinty W. Moore at a château in the French Pyrenees for a week of craft talks, live-editing, and writing-in-company.


August Virtual Intensive 
Generate new work, connect with fellow writers, shape your memoir or collection and explore publication in this four-day virtual intensive with Allison K Williams and Dinty W. Moore.

Sign up below to receive access to Zoom and the recording.

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